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April 26, 2013 3:05 pm

Book Review: Novel Casts Jewish Characters in Legal Battle for Cord Blood

avatar by Donald H. Harrison / San Diego Jewish World / JNS.org

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Liz Rosenberg, author of "The Laws of Gravity," which Donald H. Harrison covers in this book review. Photo: Amazon.

SAN DIEGO—Liz Rosenberg’s The Laws of Gravity, to be published this May, casts a full set of Jewish main characters in a legal battle over cord blood in New York, making it a natural source for reflections on Torah teachings that help us evaluate the book’s case from a perspective beyond secular state law.

The upcoming novel portrays a protagonist, Ari, who is a protective older first cousin to Nicole. Ari, fascinated by Nicole’s long red hair, is in love with his close relative but will not admit it to anyone else. Never able to have her, he settles on a marriage to her best friend who was plain but very funny, a regular stand-up comedian.

After Ari and Nicole marry their respective spouses, Mimi and Jay, they continue to socialize. Practically brought up together on Long Island, Ari and Mimi’s son, Julian, enjoys a loving relationship with Daisy, the daughter of Nicole and Jay, seemingly replicating his father’s feelings for her mother.

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But this picture goes out of focus after medical tests show that Nicole has developed cancer and will probably die unless she can obtain cord blood from the placenta that once nourished Julian as a fetus.

Ari had paid for the umbilical cord blood to be saved in case it was needed by either of his children, Julian or Arianna. He now spreads the same protectiveness he once had lavished on Nicole over his children. When Nicole asks Ari to allow her to be treated with the cord blood, he reluctantly agrees. But when Julian comes down temporarily with a sickness, alarm bells go off in Ari’s head and he withdraws his agreement. He explains that the cord blood really might be needed by Julian or Arianna, and that his child, not his cousin, must be his first priority. Mimi disagrees.

This sets the stage for a trial in which Nicole sues her cousin to release the cord blood— a trial that attracts national media attention and poses the question of the sanctity of an individual’s body versus one’s obligation to help another.

The case impacts not only the two litigating cousins, and their immediate families, but also the retiring New York judge to whom the dispute is assigned. A humanitarian, Judge Solomon Richter wants desperately to be able to find a way to save Nicole’s life, but as a jurist who follows the law—rather than one who makes it—he knows that most points and authorities are on Ari’s side of the argument.

While the legal drama comprises a good portion of the novel, author Rosenberg in turn examines the relationships between Nicole and Jay; Ari and Mimi; both sets of parents and their children; Julian and Daisy, Judge Solomon Richter and his wife, Sarah; and the Richter’s daughter, Abigail, and Rabbi Teddy Lewin, who is instructing Sarah for her adult bat mitzvah.

Family, suggests the judge’s wife Sarah, is not of necessity a matter of blood relation, but rather an aggregate of those to whom we are closely bound. “In the world to come, we will find that we are all related, to the poor, the needy, the stranger, the fatherless and the widow in your midst,” she says during an adult bat mitzvah commentary on the parsha of Re’eh. To draw close to God, people must “turn toward each other, recognize our kinship, and act accordingly,” she adds.

If this is so for distant blood relations, and even non-family members, how much more true is it about parents, children and siblings? Drawing lessons like that one from The Laws of Gravity, with all of its main characters being Jewish, allows the reader to evaluate the case presented in the book not just from the perspective of New York state law, but from Jewish and Torah lenses.

For that reason, I predict this thoughtful and intriguing novel will qualify as a topic for discussion among book groups—especially those that are based at synagogues.

Book information: The Laws of Gravity, a novel by Liz Rosenberg, Amazon Publishing, (c) 2013, ISBN: 9781611099546, 310 pages, $24.95.

Donald H. Harrison is editor of the San Diego Jewish World (www.sdjewishworld.com), where this story was originally published.

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